Legendary methadone treatment advocate Robert G. Newman, MD, is retiring. But, he hastens to add, he is not leaving the field. “What I’m leaving,” he told AT Forum in February, “is the office.”
Dr. Newman announced via a January 26 e-mail that he would be giving up his “formal role” as director of Beth Israel’s Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute. He will continue to work through June, but Hindy Bernstein, his assistant of the past 25 years, will be leaving in April. “Hindy is leaving me for Florida,” he said. Although he will no longer have the financial support of Beth Israel, he will continue advocacy efforts.
“The challenges are at least as great today as they were 40 years ago when I started my advocacy work,” Dr. Newman said. He will continue to be a fly in the ointment, but he does want to see more “noise” from the rest of the opioid treatment program (OTP) community.
His days will continue to begin and end the way they have for years, he told AT Forum. “I go to the Internet, I get the Google alerts, which very often have some particularly horrendous feature that I’m obliged to respond to.”
There is a lot of “bad news” for Dr. Newman to blog, write letters to the editor, and send e-mails about. And he does so very articulately. For example, some states are cutting off methadone treatment arbitrarily, trying to limit it to one or two years. Regulators are confounding addiction and dependence, not recognizing that maintenance medication is treatment, not a “substitute” for heroin. Unbelievable as it is that this non-science is going on today, some 50 years after medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has been proven effective, and in the face of federal officials, Dr. Newman sees it happening. And he isn’t going to be quiet about it.
NIMBY—the “not in my back yard” phenomenon in which even people who claim to support MAT don’t want programs in their neighborhoods—is illegal, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But despite the various ADA wins that OTPs have achieved, they are never “precedent-setting,” and therefore need to be fought over and over again. “This is terribly frustrating to me,” said Dr. Newman.
Dr. Newman said the opioid-treatment field can help with this fight. “There are many reasons for NIMBY, and some of those reasons have to do with the field, how we have allowed our treatment, our patients, our services to be viewed,” he said. “It isn’t just misperception on the part of communities and politicians. Some of the anti-methadone- patient bias reflects the way the field has chosen to isolate itself and adopt and embrace unique practices that make this treatment separate.”
Dr. Newman is glad that buprenorphine has been made available to OTPs and to office-based opioid treatment (OBOT) providers, as a treatment tool for caring for opioid dependence. He notes that more than 40 years ago he proposed that private physicians be permitted to offer methadone maintenance, in addition to OTPs. And now that buprenorphine can be utilized in OBOT, why not methadone, he asks rhetorically. Dr. Newman also notes the extremely limited willingness of office-based physicians to become “waivered” to prescribe buprenorphine. “I think some of the practices of programs are so foreign to what is done in every other field of medicine that medical colleagues view this as something that is from Mars and refuse to get involved in any form of opioid-dependence treatment.”
In fact, the requirement that patients go to a clinic every day is a barrier to care. Dr. Newman is skeptical about the effect of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on OTPs in particular. “I have seen repeated references to the notion that under the ACA, there’s going to be a sudden upsurge of demand for addiction treatment,” he said. “Increased demand, maybe,” he said. “But how is that demand going to be met? You can have all the insurance you want, but an awful lot of people who need treatment will avoid OTPs because of the requirements and the stigma, and there are not that many OBOT providers.”
Nevertheless, he noted that hundreds of thousands of patients do go to OTPs for MAT, which shows how motivated these patients are. “How many people would have the motivation to deal with obesity, smoking, hypertension, or a great many other medical problems if the treatment regimen required many months of daily attendance and a host of other demands? The fact that there are 300,000 people enrolled in MAT is amazing.”
Methadone Safety and Dosing
With an appropriate dosage schedule, methadone is an extremely safe medication, said Dr. Newman. But he warned that some OTPs give induction increments that are too great. The federal regulations state that the dose on the starting day must not be more than 40 milligrams—the first dose has to be no more than 30, and an additional dose that day can be 10, said Dr. Newman. But after that, there are some programs that raise the dose too quickly. “Some programs have induction protocols of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70,” with the dose going up daily, he said. The rule of thumb—“start low, go slow, aim high”—needs more of an emphasis on “go slow.”
Finally, Dr. Newman would like to see more support for methadone treatment at the federal level. The insurance plans of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have an exclusion against methadone and buprenorphine maintenance treatment, something Dr. Newman has long railed against. “Tom McLellan (then deputy director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy) and other very high-level officials have said the exclusion is bad, and that they were trying to change it,” said Dr. Newman. “But it persists, and that’s inexcusable and shameful. “
What Dr. Newman wants advocates to do is to speak up. “Silence equals death,” he said, citing an oft-used slogan of AIDS activists years ago. And he is not going to be silent. “There are a lot of windmills still out there.”